Out of This World: Great Sci-Fi and Fantasy
Nancy Pearl's Picks
I am not overly fond of the word genre. Sometimes, of course, it is simply used to describe a type of book that makes use of certain conventions. However, for many people, the word has a pejorative taint — they see genre fiction as being somehow "less" than non-genre writing.
When these people find that they really like a particular work of genre fiction, they're inclined to use phrases like "transcends the genre." Though I am not a particularly violent person, hearing this always makes me want to throttle the speaker. Genre labeling not only ghettoizes particular books, but it narrows the world of literature for readers, rather than expanding it.
And speaking of genre, although I don't consider myself at all a science fiction/fantasy fanatic, I must say that selecting the books for this topic was harder than any of the others that I've done. There is simply so much excellent stuff out there — both new and old — that I know people would enjoy, that the list could have been at least four times as long. As it is, I know I've omitted some wonderful novels, like Ursula Le Guin's The Wizard of Earthsea, Dahlgren by Samuel Delany, George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, Robert Heinlein's novels for young teens, like Between Planets and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, Clifford Simak's Way Station, Dan Simmons' Hyperion and sequels, and on and on and on.
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, paperback, 1,168 pages
Because Neal Stephenson is probably best known for his classic science fiction cyberpunk novel Snow Crash (first published in 1992 and generally thought to be a major inspiration for the online virtual world, Second Life), he's thought of as a science fiction author, but that's a rather limiting (not to mention wrong) way of looking at his writing. Cryptonomicon is my favorite of his novels (and one of my top 10 favorite books of all time). I press it on friends and strangers alike who are looking for a book that's not only a page-turning adventure, but will offer them food for thought as well (randomness and cryptanalysis, among other nuggets, in this case).
This wildly ambitious, brilliant novel is difficult to describe briefly because of its complexity and its large cast of characters. It's set in various times and places, including the Pacific Theater during World War II, Bletchley Park in England (where men and women worked around the clock to decipher Nazi codes), and a fictitious country called Kinakuta, where a group of computer geeks are attempting to set up a data haven. Stephenson's main protagonists are invented, but they mix and mingle with historical characters like Admiral Isokuro Yamamoto, Douglas MacArthur, Ronald Reagan, and Alan Turing, among others. Stephenson deftly moves the action back and forth among time periods, locations, and into and out of the lives of his sundry characters, many of whom the reader develops a huge fondness for. Perhaps Stephenson's closest literary compatriot is David Foster Wallace, with whom he shares a wicked high intelligence, a well-developed sense of humor and a prodigious imagination. Don't miss this book.
Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson, Hardcover, 320 pages
Perhaps there are some people (even librarians) who could resist reading a book with the enticing title of Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson, but not me. Written for 10- to 13-year-olds, it's the story of Alcatraz Smedry. He has spent his short life in foster homes, moving from one to another as each set of foster parents gets fed up with his clumsiness, despite his protestations that he doesn't break things on purpose. On his 13th birthday, Alcatraz receives a strange sort of present — a bag of sand! — from his real parents. However, the gift is soon stolen by a group of evil librarians bent on world domination. Only Alcatraz, assisted by his grandfather Leavenworth (who always shows up late for everything) and assorted other characters, can prevent the librarians from fulfilling their dastardly plan. First, of course, the good guys have to infiltrate the local library....
This is an excellent choice to read aloud to the whole family. It's funny, exciting, and briskly paced. Best of all, the message it gives young readers is that a person's flaws — being late, breaking things, etc. — can sometimes turn into useful talents. (Alert science fiction and fantasy fans will recognize the authors memorialized in Grandpa Smedry's exclamations, like "Blistering Brooks" and "Rumbling Rawns.")
'The Name of the Wind'
The Name of the Wind: The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day One by Patrick Rothfuss, hardcover, 662 pages
Fans of the epic high fantasies of George R.R. Martin or J.R.R. Tolkien will definitely want to check out Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind: The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day One. When a traveling historian/writer, known as Chronicler, stumbles into the Waystone Inn, he sees through the proprietor's disguise and recognizes him as Kvothe (pronounced more or less like Quothe), the most talented, and infamous, magician of his day. At Chronicler's behest, Kvothe begins to relate the story of how he came to be at the Waystone Inn, which turns out to be a rags-to-riches-to-rags story of murder and a desperate search for truth and knowledge through study of the arcane arts. I don't want to give away too many details of the plot, since one of the great pleasures of this remarkable first novel is the meticulously detailed unfolding tale of Kvothe's life. This is a true page-turner, with an engrossingly complex hero (or is he an antihero?) and set in a particularly well-imagined world; it's set a high standard as fans will eagerly await the next two installments, Day Two and Day Three, due out, respectively, in 2008 and 2009.
'The Last Light of the Sun'
The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay, paperback, 400 pages
Guy Gavriel Kay has made a name for himself among readers who love historical fantasy (another term might be alternative histories), but even those who don't consider themselves fantasy readers should take a look at Kay's novels. To write these books (two of my other favorites are The Lions of Al-Rassan and Sailing to Sarantium), Kay first immerses himself in the study of an historical era. He then invents characters, throws in a bit of magic, and, voila! — a novel that is totally fictional but always true to the essence of the period. (And who knows, perhaps his version, magic and all, is the true one.)
The Last Light of the Sun describes three groups of people living through a period of great upheaval. History buffs will recognize the action as taking place in the ninth century, when the Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, and Celts fight (and die — often gruesomely: this is not always pleasant reading) for primacy in the land that would be later called England. The characters are all three-dimensional, and their choices and their fates will come to matter deeply to readers. For those who enjoy well-written, well-researched historical fiction, there are few who equal Kay's inspired recreations of the past.
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, paperback, 304 pages
Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief is a supremely satisfying book for kids 10 and up (and a good choice for adult readers as well). It's the first in a trilogy, followed by Queen of Attolia and King of Attolia. The eponymous protagonist, Gen, who's been caught with the King of Sounis' gold ring, is imprisoned deep in the king's dungeon. His chance of freedom comes when the king's magus sets off on a dangerous journey that requires a thief's talents to succeed. Gen is being brought along to steal Hamiathes' Gift (a precious stone that gives its owner the right to rule over a country). If Gen succeeds, he'll be rewarded; if he fails, he'll die; and there's to be no escape from the magus, who promises to track him down wherever he might try to hide.
There are many adventures and not a few surprises in store for both Gen and the reader, before the last page is turned. Gen is a terrific hero — a mixture of bravado and cunning. The well-evoked settings — three warring kingdoms, Eddis, Sounis, and Attolia — loosely resemble the city-states of ancient Greece, and some of the most interesting parts of the books are the myths and legends of the region's gods and goddesses.
'The Forever War'
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, paperback, 288 pages
When I think about terrific anti-war novels, there are three that come to mind: Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, and Joe Haldeman's The Forever War. Of the three, Haldeman's is the only one that's labeled science fiction, which means that a lot of people have probably missed it. Published in 1974, it won both of the major science fiction awards — the Nebula and the Hugo — one of the few books to achieve this honor. It's hard not to believe that Haldeman, who fought in the Vietnam War, drew on his own experiences of combat in this story of William Mandella. Mandella and other men and women with genius IQs are conscripted into an elite United Nations strike force whose mission is to track down and wipe out a group of aliens known as the Taurans from their presumed home planet as punishment for attacking ships carrying Earth's colonists in space.
The action ranges from the 20th to the 34th century, as William and his fellow soldiers engage in a series of battles to the death with the enemy, about whom they know very little. Haldeman also makes good use of the time distortion that presumably occurs when you travel at near the speed of light. So that while subjectively Mandella feels only a few months have gone by, decades have actually passed on Earth, with all the attendant changes that time can bring to governments, customs, and beliefs. Haldeman makes clear that soldiers returning home from any war, after however long or short a time, inevitably find the world they come back to far different from the one they left.
Gateway by Frederik Pohl, paperback, 288 pages
Gateway by Frederik Pohl is also part of the short list of books that won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. It's been one of my favorites since I first read it in 1978, the year of its publication. Robinette Broadhead relates the story of his life on (and off) the asteroid Gateway to his psychiatrist, a robot whom he's nicknamed Sigfrid von Shrink. (I must say that I've often thought that the AI Sigfrid sets the gold standard for psychotherapists.) When Broadhead wins a lottery in his native Wyoming, he takes the first spaceship available and heads for Gateway to make his fortune prospecting. Gateway, now run by a huge multinational corporation, appears to have once been the home of aliens known to humans as Heechees. (What they called themselves is anyone's guess; Heechees is what we call them.) These aliens quite clearly left Gateway millennium before, but they left behind a large number of spacecraft, as well as other artifacts that continue to puzzle scientists as to their original function and/or use. Any prospector who comes to Gateway can choose to take out any of the available spacecraft.
The only catch is that these ships are preprogrammed, and no one can figure out where they're supposed to go, how long the trip is going to be, or how to change destinations once you're underway. When you're in a Heechee craft, you're forced to put your faith in Heechee know-how. Which can infrequently lead to fame and fortune for these risk-taking prospectors, but more often can lead to tragedy. And nobody has ever been able to figure out a foolproof way to know whether the outcome will be either tragedy or triumph. What happens to Robinette turns out to be a mix of fame, fortune and tragedy, all of which involve Klara, his fellow prospector and the great love of Broadhead's life. (Hence the necessity for his visits to Sigfrid, many years after the events he's describing.) The novel also includes excerpts from Sigfrid's notes, classified ads from the local Gateway newspaper, and even sections of lectures on what's known about Heechee life and culture, all of which deepen our understanding of the situation Broadhead finds himself in. Interestingly, it's never been the characters in and of themselves that keeps me re-reading Gateway, though they're well-drawn and interesting, but rather wondering, down through all the years since I first discovered this novel, if I would ever have the nerve to take one of those Heechee spacecraft out into unknown, uncharted, and oh-so-dangerous territory. Probably not.
More Picks from Nancy Pearl
About Nancy Pearl
Since the release of the best-selling Book Lust in 2003 and the Librarian Action Figure modeled in her likeness, Seattle's Nancy Pearl has become famous among readers and NPR listeners alike. She is a regular commentator about books on Morning Edition and NPR affiliate stations KUOW in Seattle and KWGS in Tulsa. Her latest book is Book Crush, recommended reading for kids and teens.
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